The Importance of Arctic Sea Ice to Life on Earth

“With the extinction of our species comes not only the stripping away of atmospheric ozone, but also the rapid loss of aerosol masking and therefore a stunningly rapid rate of environmental change. In other words, Homo sapiens has inadvertently become the most important species in the history of the planet: We alone can trigger extinction of life on Earth through a variety of means. And we have already pulled the trigger, unfortunately, through each of those means.”—Dr. Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Our vanishing ice. (Photo: Andrew Lovesey/Canadian Geographic.)

Our vanishing ice. (Photo: Andrew Lovesey/Canadian Geographic.)

Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”―J. Robert Oppenheimer

Guy McPherson

POULTNEY Vermont—Weekly Hubris)—1 December 2021—I am questioned daily about my evidence-based conclusion that humans will be extinct in the near term. I do not desire this outcome. Yet, I suspect the most important existential threat we face in the near future is the loss of ice floating atop the Arctic Ocean, as I have mentioned in this space a few times (most recently in my August 2021 essay). I provide a brief summary below.

The importance of Arctic sea ice cannot be overstated. President Niinistö of Finland said during a meeting with Former President Trump on August 28th, 2017, “If we lose the Arctic, we lose the globe. That is reality.” Niinistö was summarizing the dire state of the environmental situation with his words of warning. I assume the president of Finland is not a scientist, although he is knowledgeable. As one consequence, I will turn to scientific sources that support and clarify Niinistö’s claim.

Adding peer-reviewed information to President Niinistö’s claim, Professor Mark C. Urban wrote in the renowned peer-reviewed journal Science on 14 February 2020, “Arctic ice acts as Earth’s air conditioner.” Science is the premier journal of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, an organization founded in 1848. If you’re doing the math, that’s 173 years of supporting and promoting science at the national level. Urban was and is the director of the Center of Biological Risk and is also a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. He was merely reflecting an overwhelming abundance of scientific knowledge with his paper in Science, which was titled, “Life without ice.”

There will be several contributors to rapid planetary heating in the wake of an ice-free Arctic Ocean. Primary among these contributors are: 1) loss of albedo; 2) latent heat; 3) loss of aerosol masking; and 4) release of methane from the relatively shallow continental shelves in the Arctic Ocean. Each of these factors has been described at length in the peer-reviewed literature. As a result, I will provide only a brief summary here.

First, some context. We currently occupy the warmest planet in the history of civilizations on Earth, as pointed out by James Hansen and 14 other colleagues in their 18 July 2017 peer-reviewed paper, “Young people’s burden: requirement of negative CO2 emissions.” I can assure you that the planet has not cooled since 2017. According to the opening chapter in the 2020 book, The Intersection of Environmental Justice, Climate Change, and the Ecology of Life by Ande A. Nesmith and seven other scholars: “The science tells us that the planet is warming faster than predicted or imagined.” The phrase, “faster than predicted or imagined” sounds bad. Actually, it sounds beyond bad.

The rate of environmental change is critically important to retention of habitat for all species, including humans. As I have pointed out in this space, most recently in the November 2021 issue, Strona and Bradshaw wrote in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports on 13 November 2018 that the extinction of all life on Earth is to be expected from the ongoing and projected rates of planetary overheating. This is happening very quickly, and the rapid rate of environmental change in the wake of an ice-free Arctic Ocean spells disaster for life on Earth.

First up with respect to loss of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean is loss of albedo, or reflectance. As long as ice remains floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean, that ice will reflect incoming sunlight, thereby preventing the incoming sunlight from additionally overheating Earth. When the ice disappears and is replaced by the dark blue water of the ocean, then incoming sunlight will rapidly heat the water. An already overheated ocean finally led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to admit that climate change is irreversible in September of 2019 with the IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. The planetary temperature has neither cooled nor stabilized since September, 2019. Professor Jennifer MacKinnon at the Scripps Institution and also at the University of California-San Diego expects the Arctic sea ice to be gone by next year and only thenceforth develop during the winter months. She admits, however, that we might get an extra year, as was indicated by Harvard professor James Anderson in Forbes on 15 January 2018.  Loss of Arctic sea ice by 2023 translates to loss of habitat for humans and most other organisms within the coming year as the diminishing loss of sea ice accelerates, thereby leading to disrupted patterns of atmospheric circulation, intensified local warming, and profound changes in precipitation.

Loss of albedo leads directly to the next important topic, latent heat or, specifically, latent heat of fusion. The latent heat of fusion is a very big deal. Once we lose sea ice floating on top the Arctic Ocean, all the sunlight currently going into melting the ice will instead heat the water. It will not take long before that overheated seawater translates into an overheated atmosphere. A quickly overheated atmosphere means the quick loss of habitat for humans and other organisms. I wrote about this topic with my peer-reviewed article in Academia Letters, published 1 April 2021. Barring a near-term solution to this impending disaster, we will soon be saying our final good-byes. The rapid rate of change in our wake will be sufficient to cause the loss of all life on Earth.

When we lose Arctic sea ice, the temperature will rise beyond our ability to grow, store, and distribute grains at a large scale. That’s inconvenient because the ability to grow, store, and distribute grains at a large scale is what characterizes every civilization, including the one in which we are currently embedded. Again, loss of civilization translates to near-term loss of habitat for human animals because of the attendant loss of aerosol masking leading to a rapid rise in global-average temperature. 

The aerosol masking effect has been reported in more than two dozen peer-reviewed papers dating back to 1929. Most recently, the conclusion in the prestigious journal Nature Communications on 15 June 2021 comes via title: “Significant underestimation of radiative forcing by aerosol-cloud interactions derived from satellite-based methods.” As with most scientific endeavors, previous research has underestimated the aerosol masking effect. According to this recent paper in Nature Communications, loss of aerosol masking will lead to a 55 percent increase in global-average temperature, and a 133 percen increase over land. Earth has already warmed more than 2 C above the 1750 baseline according to renowned professor Andrew Y. Glikson’s October 2020 book, The Event Horizon, leading to the initiation of several self-reinforcing feedback loops (so-called “positive feedbacks”).

Finally, the abrupt release of methane from the relatively shallow continental shelves beneath the Arctic Ocean poses an existential threat. This idea was initially presented by Dr. Natalia Shakhova and three other scholars at the European Geophysical Union annual conference in April, 2008. Their abstract from the presentation includes these lines: “We consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time. That may cause 12-times increase of modern atmospheric methane burden with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming.” Notice that an ice-free Arctic Ocean was not required for this catastrophic release of methane. It still isn’t.

When humans exit the planetary stage, the uncontrolled meltdown of the world’s nuclear power facilities will cause atmospheric ozone to be stripped away, as indicated by the loss of stratospheric ozone in the wake of the Toba supervolcano about 74,000 years ago combined with the loss of magnetic protection in the wake of ionizing radiation in exoplanets from nearby stars.

With the extinction of our species comes not only the stripping away of atmospheric ozone, but also the rapid loss of aerosol masking and therefore a stunningly rapid rate of environmental change. In other words, Homo sapiens has inadvertently become the most important species in the history of the planet: We alone can trigger extinction of life on Earth through a variety of means. And we have already pulled the trigger, unfortunately, through each of those means.

I continue to point to the MEER: ReflEction framework developed by Dr. Ye Tao at Harvard’s Rowland Institute. In my informed opinion, Dr. Tao’s idea offers a positive path forward in the face of a near-term ice-free Arctic Ocean. I encourage your support of this novel and important framework.

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

About Guy McPherson

Dr. Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-hosts his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes. Visit McPherson’s Author Page at amazon.com. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)
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7 Responses to The Importance of Arctic Sea Ice to Life on Earth

  1. ricardo2000 says:

    As usual, Dr. McPherson provides accurate, authoritative opinions based on peer-reviewed science. The science is terrifying:
    Ande A. Nesmith and seven other scholars: “The science tells us that the planet is warming faster than predicted or imagined.”;
    “…Strona and Bradshaw wrote in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports on 13 November 2018 that the extinction of all life on Earth is to be expected from the ongoing and projected rates of planetary overheating.”

    Even if Arctic ice is lost by 2030, or even 2050, this is still an eye blink in geologic time scales, and only a couple of heartbeats in human civilization.

  2. judy says:

    “I am questioned daily about my evidence-based conclusion that humans will be extinct in the near term. I do not desire this outcome.”

    Oddly, I am unconcerned about this outcome, though like death, I am am not disquieted by the ultimate, but uncomfortable with the process. Would that both could be quick and painless, though neither is likely.

  3. Guy R McPherson says:

    Thank you for your positive comments, ricardo2000 and judy. As you point out, ricardo2000, the science is terrifying. Also as you point out, a few decades is the cosmic blink of an eye. Your lack of concern about near-term human extinction is a rare perspective, judy. If only more people shared it …

  4. colinc says:

    Actually, it seems to me that a large portion of humanity has long had a “lack of concern about near-term human extinction.” I mean, isn’t that REALLY the reason we’re all staring down the barrel of self-inflicted obliteration? Regardless, as a frequent visitor to more than a few threads on the ASIF, I’m thinking your quoted time-frames for events to transpire are a bit off… but not by enough to be of any significance. My Bayesian model(s) suggest that worldwide there will still be some humans “living” after 2040. However, it is pretty much a dead certainty that they won’t be feeling particularly “lucky.” Before then, as you indicate, ALL nuclear power-generation facilities will have gone Chernobyl/Fukushima with no people or means to stem or “contain” the radioactive fires. Indeed, pretty much all electric generation and “management/distribution” will have ceased and all the seals and other containment measures at Biohazard Level 4 installations will have failed, releasing all those nasty critters inside. Nonetheless, as the movie character Ian Malcolm once said, “Life, ah, finds a way.” Well before 2100, all “complex” life will have ended but I’ll dare say some monocellular little beasties will “carry on.”

  5. Guy R McPherson says:

    I’d love to see your evidence supporting the idea that humans will survive long after an ice-free Arctic Ocean, colinc. I suspect, based on peer-reviewed papers, that this event will trigger the loss of all life on Earth. I’d rather it not, but I don’t apply wishful thinking to evidence, no matter how dire it is.

  6. colinc says:

    My apology for not responding sooner, I don’t visit this site much. As to the “evidence” I’ve used in my analysis, you can find it all on the ASIF, a veritable cornucopia of peer-reviewed papers can be found linked in those threads. Alas, one will probably have to read/scan a plethora of inane comments, but they are, fortunately, interspersed with a few astute observations and analyses. Good luck finding what you seek, I’ve been following more than 2 dozen threads there for more than a decade. To give you “a leg up,” you might find the thread titled “Ice Apocalypse – MULTIPLE METERS SEA LEVEL RISE” of more than a little interest, especially the commentary and linked papers provided by user AbruptSLR. It might also be prudent to visit the “Freezing Season” and “Melting Season” threads among others.
    But make no mistake. After about 2040-2050, I don’t expect more than one-tenth of one percent of today’s human population to be extant, and it certainly might be far fewer and what they will be enduring cannot be described as “living” by today’s standards, even as it is currently in Yemen and Syria. Many people describe humans and humanity as “resilient,” I think a better descriptor is “rabidly tenacious.” Regardless, I, too, am certain that extinction for all vertebrate life, at the very least, will be complete well before the end of this century. Otherwise, I hope you had a pleasant holiday season (I’m glad it’s nearly done) and wish you well for the foreseeable future.

  7. Guy R McPherson says:

    No links, colinc? No evidence presented? Few people in 2040-2050 means loss of aerosol masking. Apparently, you are unaware of aerosol masking. Color me shocked.